Magazine article The American Conservative

Close Encounter

Magazine article The American Conservative

Close Encounter

Article excerpt

The last days of the Cold War's greatest journal

You know you're getting old when graduate students - still in diapers when the Berlin Wall collapsed - lecture to you about Leonard Bernstein As Cold War Icon. Especially when they insist on saying "Bern-sreen," which no Australian in Lenny's lifetime dreamed of doing.

Cold War historiography has become, of late, truly hip. The selfsame collegiate bloviators who at the time denied that the Cold War even existed are now falling over each other to hold conferences on the subject. Cold War historians can make megabucks. I have bills to pay. Some of those megabucks, I cannot help feeling, should be mine.

Obeying the vainglorious but understandable code of the brush-wielding dilettante who allegedly told Michelangelo, "I too am a painter," I should like to assure the world that "I too was a Cold Warrior." It is no more impudent an assertion than Al Gore's boast of inventing the Internet, and within my youth's largely tin-pot circles it has - unlike Gore's swanking-the merit of accuracy. In particular, I can claim to have done my part to wreck Encounter.

If you've read this far you probably remember what Encounter was. But the name of its boss, Melvin J. ("Mel") Lasky, will mean nothing to almost anyone under 35. For almost anyone over 35, though, he was as prominent once as A.C. Grayling is today. In British (and West German) high journalism from 1953 to 1990, Lasky mattered. He controlled Encounter while other editors came and went.

There is no equivalent to Encounter now, except the Times Literary Supplement, perhaps. Encounter seemed to publish all scribblers marginally less politically demented than Kim Il-Sung. Historians from Sir Arthur Bryant to the knighthood-hating A.J.P. Taylor, veteran Italian antifascists from Luigi Barzini to Ignazio Silone, the turgidity of Frank Kermode ("Old Toad, Frank Kermode," in Philip Larkin's snicker) alongside the repartee of Ken Tynan: Encounter catered for them all, and you can now look up every issue online, thanks to

Encounter even found room for Australians. It ran an early (1979) anti-Holocaust-denialism exposé, one carried out by Melbourne University's Czech refugee Frank "Franta" Knopfelmacher. Franta must have been the greatest, and most vilified, political philosopher of modern times. After all, he would say so himself, usually in late-night telephone monologues of Toynbeean length, invariably with more F- words than Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor combined.

Another Australian had known about Encounter because since 1953 copies of it had been sent to his address: David Stove, Philosophy Department, The University of New South Wales. David Stove was a regular victim of Franta's telephony until his wife Jessie Stove, goaded beyond endurance by same, ordered him to cease picking up the handset. He was also my father, and Jessie Stove my mother. Which is where I came in.

My mother always maintained that the first word I ever used in Scrabble was "Encounter" (Dad: "That's my boy") and that the second word I learned to use in Scrabble was "communism" (Dad: "That bloody boy!"). Yet I knew the second word only because of the first word. Our house had Encounter back issues the way dogs have fleas. There I learned about a mysterious term called "communism." I learned much else too. To read Encounter was a liberal education. Years later I discovered from Michael Easson - a hard-as-nails, bookish social democrat and plausibly credited with having run New South Wales the way Richelieu ran France- that a similar abundance of ancient Encounter copies prevailed in his childhood home.

Passing in silence over school, Brezhnev, Vietnam, Nixon in China, and "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!", we come to 1990. By this stage Dad had joined Encounters stable of authors. I wanted to join Encounters stable of authors. This did not seem inherently impossible. Already I had planned, or "planned," a book on César Franck. …

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